Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

The Tricky Balance Between Frugality and Charity

September 27, 2021


Repurposing has become a popular term. It does have a certain je ne sais quoi that “reusing for a different purpose” or “wearing a hand-me-down” does not.  I am currently repurposing a twenty-year-old barn coat that was once my sister’s. Yes, repurposing certainly has a more chic sound. And that is a definite plus, as anything that encourages sharing and frugality deserves to be encouraged. Why do I bring this up today? Well, when I think of chic repurposing, I think of my favorite chic store—the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store—and the saint whose name it bears, St. Vincent de Paul.

Born in the late sixteenth century into a French farm family of very limited means, Vincent was an exceptionally bright student. He was able to further his education by working as a tutor. By the age of twenty-four, he had been ordained a priest and within four years had a doctorate in theology. It was not long after receiving this degree that Vincent’s life was upended while on a short sea trip. The ship on which he was sailing was overtaken by pirates. Those who survived the initial attack were held captive and taken to Africa to be sold into slavery. Sold once, then sold again to a kindhearted Muslim, Vincent prayed for his faith to remain strong as the owner who had grown fond of him tried to convert him. When this owner died, Vincent was sold to a man who had once been Christian. It was one of this owner’s Muslim wives who, touched by Vincent’s strong faith, convinced her husband to return to France and repent. It was then that Vincent, too, made his return to France.

It was not until Vincent was close to fifty years old that he became director of a religious house. Given the priory of St. Lazare, the Fathers of the Mission came to be known as Vincentians. The lay and clergy members of the order took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. Within Vincent’s lifetime, he saw twenty-five communities of this order (which is now spread throughout the world) established in Europe.

Not satisfied that he was doing enough for the suffering, though the Fathers of the Mission were given to lives of preaching and charitable works, Vincent formed groups of well-to-do volunteers to care for the sick and suffering. With the help of St. Louise de Marillac, these charitable groups evolved to become the Daughters of Charity. Never forgetting his days of slavery, Vincent also raised money to ransom more than one thousand slaves in Africa. Though he became an accomplished and politically influential man, Vincent’s heart was always with the poor and suffering. Alleviation of suffering was the driving force in his life all the way until his death in 1660.

But where do those thrift stores of which I am so fond come in? The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, named for the saint who had been canonized in 1737, was founded in Paris in 1833 by Blessed Frédéric Ozanam. It did not take long for the society to spread beyond Paris, quickly moving throughout the world. In less than two decades, the society was established in the United States. There is more to the St. Vincent de Paul Society than simply being the purveyors of chic repurposed items. The money raised through their thrift stores helps the society to minister to the needs of millions of poor and suffering individuals throughout the world. The opportunity for frugal shopping is just a tiny bit of the service rendered by this group for whom St. Vincent is patron.

Frugality and charity are tied together. As a parent, I have known the stresses that come with running a home, clothing the children and facing the strains on the budget, while also remembering the obligation to charity. This is where a parent can take the opportunity for repurposing—beyond the family hand-me-downs—and consider a bit of thrift store shopping. And trips to the thrift store need not be limited to shopping. After a recent move to a smaller home, I find myself at the other end of the thrift store, dropping off many items no longer needed to be repurposed for charity. Here we find more than “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” I am extremely pleased to give away the furniture, lamps, tchotchkes, clothes, and books that no longer fit in my house, knowing that they could not only be a blessing to someone else but also help to generate income for the society. I can only hope that I don’t accidentally buy back some of my stuff.

The balancing of frugality and charity is something that needs to be modeled in every Christian family. Frugality for its own sake makes one stingy and can lead to a lack of charity. But husbanding one’s resources with care and living in simplicity allows us to share these resources more fully with others. May we always keep the poor and suffering in our minds and in our prayers. And as we Christians strive to share more in charity and live more simply, the words of St. Vincent de Paul to the members of his order are something we can all take to heart in the domestic church: “Our highest ambition is to instruct the ignorant, to bring sinners to a spirit of penitence, and to plant the Gospel spirit of charity, humility, and simplicity in the hearts of all Christians.”

This piece was originally published on September 27, 2016 in the Word on Fire Blog.